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Education News From Northeastern Connecticut volume 42, number 4

Summer 2022

Mindfulness‌ ‌Informs‌ ‌ EASTCONN’s‌ ‌Interdistrict‌ ‌Grants‌ ‌Program‌

Interdistrict‌ ‌Grant‌ ‌Facilitators‌ ‌Esther‌ ‌Soffer‌ ‌(left)‌ ‌& ‌Stephanie‌ ‌White‌ ‌(right).‌

For many teachers, students and parents, mindfulness became a life raft during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering time-tested, easy-to-follow methods for regulating moods, outlooks and emotions. Long before the pandemic, however, EASTCONN Interdistrict Grant facilitator Esther Soffer introduced mindfulness practices – deep breathing, meditation, bell-listening and other techniques – into her work with local school districts. “About seven years ago, I went to my director at the time and said, ‘Hey, I’ve been reading about this mindfulness thing. I read a couple of articles and I really want to try this,’” Soffer said. Soffer also took inspiration from Ken Caputo, a Mansfield karate instructor, who taught social-emotional learning to his See Mindfulness, page 2

EASTCONN Autism Program Rebranded as Bridges Community School

Staff members gather outside EASTCONN Bridges Community School in Columbia.

EASTCONN is pleased to announce that its Autism Program, located at 10 Commerce Drive in Columbia, Conn., will now be known as Bridges Community School. “Through the process of rebranding, we were hoping to land on a name that felt aligned with our vision, core values, and the work that we do here,” said Erin Crosby, Program Director at Bridges Community School. “All of our learners come to us with a wide variety of skills, needs, and goals for the future. Our hope is that our program can support each student to build the skills necessary to meet their individual goals, thus building a bridge to exciting opportunities.” EASTCONN Bridges Community School provides a regionally based, comprehensive, integrated service program for See Bridges, page 4

EASTCONN 376 Hartford Turnpike Hampton, CT 06247

...Mindfulness, from page 1

“The success of our grants is the result of EASTCONN’s focus on equity through the implementation of bringing urban, rural, and suburban districts together through collaborative partnerships.”

- Anna Forlenza-Bailey, Ph.D., Outgoing Director of Talent Development at EASTCONN. programs served over 1,200 third- to eighth-grade students across 17 districts in northeastern Connecticut and in Hartford. (Only 19 Interdistrict Grants were awarded across the entire state in 2021-22.) “The success of our grants is the result of EASTCONN’s focus on equity through the implementation of bringing urban, rural, and suburban districts together through collaborative partnerships,” said Anna Forlenza-Bailey, Ph.D., outgoing Director of Talent Development at EASTCONN. “Esther and Stephanie move the work forward through their creativity, passion and commitment.” White, who came to EASTCONN three years ago after teaching in Windham Public Schools for eight years, said a number of schools have expressed interest in partnering with the agency around the social-emotional lessons and mindfulness work she and Soffer incorporate into their programs. “That’s been a really big selling point – that and the sense of community we’re able to bring to schools by partnering them with other districts, with their pen pals,” White said. “They get to write to one another and meet each other virtually, because everyone’s been so isolated, especially young children.” Jake St. John, a teacher at Voluntown Elementary School, said his students always walk away from EASTCONN’s grant programs knowing kindness and compassion is the way. “Being able to participate in programs with Esther and Stephanie is always a gratifying part of the school year and I can not stress how my students have benefited from their work,” St. John said. “Teaching in a small rural school district, it is always exciting to see students’ eyes open wide when the world is brought right to them.” Soffer and White aren’t immune to the heightened emotions they encounter in the classroom – virtual or otherwise. Several weeks ago, a shy fifth-grader learned the two facilitators had instructed a class a day earlier in the town where he used to live. “We were telling them that we had just been in their partner classroom yesterday and met their pen pals,” White said. “One boy said, ‘I moved from that town and that’s my friend!’ He started to cry, and he went over to his teacher and hugged her. It was so sweet to see a student moved to tears, just knowing that he had a connection to someone from his past.”

Angie Jacques of YONO Yoga & Meditation works with students on the Shaboo Stage in Willimantic.

Students learn yoga on the Shaboo Stage in Willimantic.

students in between kicks and punches. “He taught them how to breathe and use their body to calm themselves,” Soffer said. When Soffer pitched mindfulness as the focus of a new grant, her director’s response was positive but cautious. “The feedback was, ‘You can try anything you want, but I don’t know if it’s going to work,’” Soffer said. “And I was like, ‘Cool, I’m going to try it.’” Soon after, Mindful Transformations – one of five Interdistrict Cooperative Grants currently facilitated by EASTCONN – was born. And when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Soffer and fellow grant facilitator Stephanie White found they had ample resources on hand to help students, teachers and community members. “It was the perfect thing then, and it gave us some experience in doing this work before the pandemic hit,” Soffer said. “Right now, we’re really seeing a need for mindfulness – in teachers and adults especially.” EASTCONN’s cutting-edge work on Interdistrict Cooperative Grants is nothing new. For more than two decades, the agency has collaborated with the Connecticut State Department of Education and local school districts on programming that brings together students from disparate backgrounds to combat racial, social and economic isolation and improve academic performance. Last year, EASTCONN received funding for five grants – America’s Mosaic, Faces of Culture, Farming Our Land and Sea, Forensic Detectives and Mindful Transformations. The

EASTCONN Connections


Executive Editor: Dona Prindle, Director of Marketing & Communications, Editor/Writer: Michael Hamad, Communications Specialist, Graphic Designer: Angela Dean, EASTCONN Administration: David B. Erwin, Interim Executive Director, EASTCONN, 376 Hartford Turnpike, Hampton, CT 06247, 860-455-0707


QMC Proposal Wins in Statewide Voice4Change Program A proposal to combat food insecurity in northeastern Connecticut has earned EASTCONN’s Quinebaug Middle College magnet school a spot among the top grant winners in the state’s groundbreaking Voice4Change program. “Building Sustainable Food Systems in Schools Impacted by Food Insecurities in Northeastern Connecticut,” a plan submitted by the Community Garden/Nature Trail service learning group, will allow students to build sustainable garden systems around the QMC campus. “Finding out that it was one of the top-rated projects so far at a lot of schools: It made me really happy, because this is something I’ve been looking forward to doing for a while now,” said Marc Schmidt, a sophomore from Hampton who attends QMC. In 2021, the Connecticut State Department of Education (CDSE) announced the Voice4Change grant program, inviting students across the state to submit ideas for spending up to $20,000 in American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) funds. Across the state, 80 schools from 45 districts participated. QMC’s proposal, which received $16,000 in funding, was one of only 59 selected. Award winners were announced on April 8 of this year. The proposal is a partnership between QMC and GROW Windham, a grassroots organization that works toward strengthening local food systems through education, community engagement and hands-on planting and harvesting. Last month, QMC physical science teacher Eugene Vostinek, who serves as a faculty advisor for the service learning group, pointed out a hydroponic system supplied by GROW Windham that the class uses for growing lettuce. “The grant money that we’re going to get will supply more of these for us to use around the school and to grow not just the lettuces,” Vostinek said. “We’ve harvested once already, and we’ve had a few that didn’t come back. But the light green one: [QMC student] Nevaeh [Ivory] grew from seed.” Ivory said she knew nothing about growing vegetables before joining the Community Garden/Nature Trail service learning group at QMC. “I researched it when I got into the nature club, because I knew this is what I wanted to do,” Ivory said. “Honestly, watching stuff grow is the best part, seeing how big it gets is really cool to me.” QMC student Meshayla Lewis, who was building a small growing system using a plastic bucket and some PVC piping, said working on the project had taught her valuable skills that

Agency Professional Notes ‌Erin McGurk, Director of Talent Development

QMC sophomore Matthew Bradley (left) with Principal David S. Brown (right).

she’ll use beyond the classroom. “You never know: in the real world, something could happen and you might have to grow plants outside your house,” Lewis said. “It’s better to learn now.” QMC’s proposal addresses all five of the criteria determined by the state for approval: learning acceleration; family and community connections; social-emotional and mental health; strategic use of technology; and building safe and healthy schools. The plan is to build small hydroponic and stand-up gardens around the school and to create a multi-level, terraced garden on the outdoor grounds. Students in the service learning group have spent much of their time during the school year working in one of those three groups. Some of the produce has already been cultivated and sent out to community members who are in need. “We’ve already collected a good amount of lettuce from the hydroponic garden and we’ve sent that out,” said sophomore Matthew Bradley, who wrote the final proposal to the state. “So once we have everything built and our resources together, we’re going to have a good amount going out for not only our school but other schools in northeastern Connecticut.”


Erin McGurk, Ed.D. joined EASTCONN’s Leading and Learning division as a Director of Talent Development, bringing a rich background in educational leadership, professional learning, and curriculum, instruction, and assessment expertise. Erin will serve as a member of the development team for a statewide RESC Alliance initiative on equitycentered practices, support CSDE work related to a new strategic plan for Connecticut schools, and assist with the rollout of the new educator evaluation model. She will also provide coaching and support in leadership development and student-centered practices in schools across northeast Connecticut.


...Bridges, from page 1

students with autism and other low-incidence disabilities from pre-K to age 22. The program is characterized by a structured, intensive, individualized approach to instruction based on the principles of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). Our educators practice systematic teaching to promote learning and generalization and utilize on-going evidencebased assessment, intervention and progress monitoring to guide instruction in all areas of development. The word community, Crosby added, “is also very important to us, as we hope to create an environment in which students, families, staff and district stakeholders each feel welcomed as a part of the team, collaborating to promote positive outcomes for all learners.” “Our families and students have often had difficult school experiences prior to coming to us, and we want to be the bridge that connects them to a positive learning environment,” said EASTCONN Director of Pupil Services Amy Margelony. “We hope to continue to build community, not only within EASTCONN but within the towns and districts we serve.” Members of EASTCONN’s multidisciplinary team, including psychologists and Board-Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs), are also available to consult with districts to assess program or districtwide needs, with the goal of building indistrict capacity to develop and support student programs in their home schools/ communities. EASTCONN Bridges Community School provides services for towns in northeastern Connecticut and across other parts of the state. For placement into the program, parents or guardians should ask their local school leaders for a referral. (EASTCONN cannot directly admit any student into the program without a referral from a public school district.)

A Library Grows at EASTCONN Bridges Community School Speech-Language Therapist Sarah Turner (left), Speech-Language Pathology Assistant Tracey Neumuth (center) and Program Director Erin Crosby (right).

Earlier this spring, teachers at the newly rebranded Bridges Community School opened a cozy library, where students can check out titles, curl up on bean bag chairs to read, or gain experience as library “workers” by cataloging, sorting and restocking the shelves. Thanks to donations from EASTCONN employees and community members, the library continues to grow. From among shelves of carefully labeled books, staff members now curate weekly titles to fit their students’ interests and capabilities. Student workers learn job skills they might not otherwise be exposed to, while young readers learn valuable life lessons through tasks like checking out books and following library rules. “They have just been so happy to be here,” Tracey Neumuth, a Speech-Language Assistant at Bridges Community School and the library’s founder, said of her students. “You see it on their faces. That type of engagement, we hope, is something that will help them when they go out into the community with their families and are able to have exposure to the town library.”

Clifford the Big Red Dog, Thomas the Tank Engine and the lovable, forgetful Froggy all feature prominently in weekly themes like “weather,” “animals,” “vehicles” and “seasons,” which target students’ language and vocabulary goals. Borrowers can also access read-aloud, visual experiences of each Book of the Week using assistive technology and QR codes. When the idea first came about, Program Director Erin Crosby said she never could have imagined the number of learning opportunities that would happen in the space. “Beyond helping to foster a love of learning, our library has provided the opportunity to practice many important vocational skills and social skills as well,” she said. One Bridges student shared that “our school makes me happy because I can borrow books about Pete the Cat!”


After-School Students at Windham Heights Clean Up for Earth Day

If you’re feeling any anxiety about the future of our planet, look no further than the incredible students in EASTCONN’s Community Arts Connection (CAC) AfterSchool Program at Windham Heights and their leader, Program Facilitator Kevin Segar. Nearly every day they’re planting

seeds, breaking rocks and hauling bags of garbage from the vernal pools close to the Natchaug River. Watch this video they made in advance of Earth Day 2022, and give them a huge round of applause for keeping our environment clean.‌


Windham Heights clean-up crew with Program Facilitator Kevin Segar (far right).